May 20, 2019 | By Mark Dundas Wood
Early in her new show at Pangea, Where I Belong, German-born singer Susanne Mack tells about growing up along the Swiss-German border. She speaks of being fascinated by a bridge with a line down the middle—a border marker that you could straddle so that your left foot was in one country and your right in another, leaving you in a neither/nor situation. It’s the perfect metaphor for her show’s theme. Mack talks—and sings—about the whole construct of “belonging.” What is it that makes people feel that they are at home? And what prevents them from having a sense of belonging? Are some feelings of alienation inevitable, or do people put up emotional barriers that prevent them from feeling that they can fit in?
Mack is a likable raconteur, and she talks a good amount in the show. It’s fairly standard procedure in cabaret to perform two discrete numbers before speaking to your audience. But she jumps right in with some patter after her opening mash-up: Tom Waits’s “Shiver Me Timbers” and Jimmy Somerville and Steve Bronski’s “Small Town Boy.” Both selections tell stories of leaving home in order to find home.
The singer’s directors, Barb Jungr and Tanya Moberly, have helped her to build a show that has a sense of progression. Songs with similar moods—determination, wistfulness, sunny optimism—are grouped together to suggest points of conflict and points of resolution. There are songs of introspection, in which Mack sings while looking out into the blue, and songs of connection, in which she engages the audience, making eye contact with them.
Mack’s voice is a hardy instrument. It’s deep and often loud, and sometimes it buzzes with honeybee-like vibrato. The character song “Helen” (Patty Larkin) is a good vehicle for her. It’s told from the perspective of a hardworking, hardbitten townie whose sense of belonging is disturbed by moneyed interlopers who are taking over her territory and who look their noses down at her. Mack is a very demonstrative performer here. Her facial expressions change, kaleidoscopically, from moment to moment. But she doesn’t mug or otherwise push the emotions in the music. She is clearly an actor in song.
She has more of a challenge with some of the more delicate songs, such as the folky “No Milk Today” (Graham Gouldman), a song that laments the loss of love and happiness. Sometimes when she sustains a note while singing softly, she falls short. She doesn’t carry through with that buzzy-bee effect but instead lets the note peter out. That can be right for certain moments, but sometimes I got the feeling she was having difficulty.
“No Milk Today,” a hit for the group Herman’s Hermits, ties with the familiar (and warmly performed) Beach Boys song “God Only Knows” (Brian Wilson, Tony Asher) as the oldest song in her set. Both numbers were written in 1966. Mack has no pre-1960s standards in her show. That’s fine. But there are selections here that bring the show down a bit. I understand that Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?” is something of a pop classic. It is interesting lyrically—it’s packed with allusions to glamorous people and places—but its melody is fairly monotonous. I found the country-ish “Boondocks” (Little Big Town, Wayne Kirkpatrick) even less interesting. Perhaps she could have found some worthier titles in earlier chapters of the Great American Songbook. Or some other nation’s songbook. According to her press notes, Mack enjoys singing not only in English but also in German, French, and Italian. She doesn’t do so here. Language differences, though, can be a big blockade to one’s sense of belonging. There could have been interesting ways for her to tap into her multilingual skills to comment on that.
Mack’s musical director and pianist, Paul Greenwood, plays sensitively throughout the evening. He also provides gentle vocal harmonies on a couple of songs. The two performers seem fully in sync with each other.
This is a satisfying show, if a bit short on “wow” moments. Mack has a vivid presence and plenty of smarts and heart. There’s room for additional growth (as there is with most performers)—and I look forward to seeing and hearing her in future outings.
Where I Belong
Pangea – May 16, 17, 23, 30